When there’s a fire, most people run away, but federal firefighters run towards the flame. Whether it’s a wildfire, hurricane, or other natural disasters, FEMA and Coast Guard firefighters are there to save lives. Defense and Veterans Affairs firefighters are there to protect our country’s military installations and VA medical facilities and rescue people from dangerous situations. Their work week is long – usually 72 hours a week.
Because of their routine exposures to carcinogens, toxic substances, smoke , heat, and infectious diseases, many federal firefighters have developed cancer. According to a study done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, firefighters have higher rates of cancer than the U.S. population as a whole. But the government doesn’t consider occupational illnesses job-related disabilities, and so federal firefighters get no occupational disability compensation if they get diagnosed with cancer or other illnesses caused by their rigorous occupation. Unlike their state counterparts, federal firefighters must specify the precise exposure that caused his or her illness in order to get any kind of compensation. This burden of proof weighs heavily and unfairly against them as they respond to all kinds of emergency calls under various conditions.
That’s why the AFGE Firefighters Steering Committee worked closely with members of Congress to help pass the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act, which would require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop and maintain a voluntary registry of firefighters to collect history and occupational information that can be linked to existing data in state cancer registries. AFGE worked closely with their brothers and sisters at the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the AFGE law enforcement officers to advocate for the Cancer Registry bill and other legislative initiatives on Capitol Hill.
Under the bill, the registry will be used to collect and analyze epidemiological information regarding cancer among firefighters. The registry will include specific information such as the number and type of fire incidents attended by an individual. The CDC must also develop guidance for states and firefighting agencies regarding the registry and develop a process for making registry data available for research without a fee.
The bill, H.R. 931, passed the House last year, and the Senate recently passed it with minor changes. The bill needs to be voted by the House again before being signed into law by the President.
AFGE Firefighters Steering Committee Vice Chair Bill McGuire thanks members of Congress for supporting this common-sense bill that serves as the first step in establishing the link between the firefighters’ cancer and their job. AFGE have had several non-smoking firefighters who retired and later contracted different types of cancer and diseases that can be related to exposures on the job. Without this kind of data collection, they won’t be able to prove it.
“We’re hopeful that over time there will be more and more justification to justify presumptive disability and death due to exposures that could be claimed to be firefighting related exposures,” McGuire said.
The federal government is lagging far behind states on this important issue. Certain states recognize at the state level that if after their firefighters have retired and later developed cancer, there is a presumed link to their job as a firefighter. This allows them to receive some kind of compensation like long-term disability pay.
Other groups of people have received presumptive disability benefits approved by Congress. Vietnam veterans who contracted certain diseases, for example, receive service-connected disability benefits. World Trade Center responders are eligible for benefits related to their rescue, recovery, and clean-up operations.
McGuire hopes that this bill would pave the way for Congress to pass HR 1884, the Federal Firefighters Fairness Act, which would create a presumption that a disability or death of a federal employee in fire protection activities caused by certain diseases is the result of the performance of such employee’s duty.
Are you a federal firefighter? Do you know someone who’s a federal firefighter?
Federal firefighters put their lives on the line to save ours and protect our nation’s property. Join the AFGE Firefighters Steering Committee in making sure our heroes are taken care of!